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Tony Aeck Talks Designing ATL & Architectural Technology

A few large architecture firms in Atlanta that have made themselves internationally known, and one of those is Lord Aeck Sargent. What was started as a humble practice by Richard L. Aeck, FAIA more than seven decades ago has become one of the city's most prestigious firms, with offices in five other cities across the country, too. Tony Aeck, FAIA, son of the senior Aeck, carries on the traditions of that first practice as a principal of the firm today. A licensed architect since 1973 — Aeck calls it "forever" — he received his degree from Rice University but attributes his education to an array of sources including his parents, who were both design professionals. A native Atlantan, Aeck is a major proponent of good design in Atlanta. We sat down with him to hear more about his years of experience in practice for this week's edition of Field Note Fridays.

CURBED ATLANTA: Lord Aeck Sargent has a long history in Atlanta. How would you characterize the firm and its legacy in the city?

Tony Aeck, FAIA: As you might expect, any firm which has been around for almost 75 years is not easily characterized as being "one thing." A granular look would discern various eras:

1) The period right after my father founded his practice and focused on single family residential design.
2) Then, my mother joined him as institutional and governmental projects entered the mix
3) Then, I eventually joined their firm, bringing my keen interest in using computers in design practice and in working abroad
4) Toward the end of that era, Larry Lord and Terry Sargent left Heery and established their own practice that quickly became known for creative design
5) Next, the three of us combined our forces and began practicing as partners for a span of many years
6) Much of the merged firm's growth came during the next period when we identified a lot of younger talent and began drawing them into leadership roles
7) Now, they're largely "driving the bus" and ably taking us all forward

But, I recognize I haven't fully answered your question. So, in a nutshell, the firm is a long term, multi-generational collaborative design practice that aspires to do good work always and isn't dependent on any one individual. Our portfolio includes many designs we're proud of spanning our various areas of expertise. We especially relish complex commissions that require deep experience and cross-disciplinary collaboration with an emphasis on environmental sustainability and "making a contribution." Our commitment to the City has included planning and design for MARTA, the Olympics, the Midtown Alliance, and the Beltline — as well as many urban infill projects that are helping transform Atlanta into an environment where people can live, work and play. Additionally, our Atlanta office has always been located in Downtown or Midtown, and now many staff members walk or bike to work. Finally, we have drawn many talented professionals to the City, some of whom have gone on to found their own practices and contribute further in their own ways.

CURBED: What is the role of architects in helping shape not only the buildings they design, but the greater context of the city?

AECK: Daniel Burnham (noted 19th Century Chicago architect) exhorted us to "make no small plans." Architecture seems to be regaining a larger vision of its role and potential as we all rethink how Atlanta should grow. Our own firm is highly invested in this notion, having added urban design, planning, landscape architecture, and graphics to expand our influence on our Atlanta environment. Consequently, a significant part of our practice focuses on mixed-use multi-family projects that enhance life in this growing metropolis.

To a large degree, the "context" of the City is defined by its architecture. It therefore falls to every architect to engage any project with a sense of civic responsibility that extends beyond the immediate time and place and aspires to serve the public good long after that architect is gone. For our planning and urban design practice, it means designing thoughtful urban landscapes that improve the public realm; for our education practice, it means designing projects like the Helen M. Aderhold building downtown that both serves the needs of Georgia State University's students and contributes to the vibrancy of the Fairlie-Poplar District; and for our Historic Preservation practice it means preserving and giving new life to buildings designed by others to maintain cultural continuity with our past.

CURBED: And how has that role morphed during your time in practice, responding to the evolving needs and contexts within the city?

AECK: Without question, my father's principal focus was on "the building," although he well understood its site was integral to any good design. Our firm's mantra of "Responsive Design" is an acknowledgement that every project must respond not only to the needs of the client, but also to its cultural and environmental context. Over time, we have expanded our disciplines to allow us to better address issues of planning, urban design, and sustainability to ensure that our buildings serve not only our clients but their communities.

CURBED: Architecture, like other professions, has changed dramatically in recent years with new and evolving technologies. How have new tools changed the practice of architecture from a production perspective?

AECK: Thank heaven the day has finally come! We bought our first CADD (computer-aided design and drafting) system in 1979, and I confidently predicted that in the '80s we would be doing some of the things we finally can do today. Unless someone schooled in the profession has been marooned on a desert island for a while, they have to be aware of how technology is enhancing production. The real story is how it is enhancing design and future facilities management!

CURBED: And how have building design and construction techniques changed in response to new means and methods?

AECK: A big change is work is moving to the factory or fabrication shop and away from the actual job site. On site, there is a lot more technology and, happily, increasing safety. Concomitant with more robust technology supporting design and construction collaboration is ever-increasing project complexity. And clients always want everything faster!

CURBED: To this point, what would you say has been the most surprising aspect of practice and what have you found most fulfilling in your work in Atlanta?

AECK: As alluded to before, I have been perplexed as to why AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) has been relatively slow adopting automation. I think it was almost 125 years between the invention of steam power and applying it to the construction site. We worked with John Portman & Associates and Georgia Tech to marry 3D with finite element structural modeling in the 1980s on the Marriott Marquis Hotel, but it took a very long time to achieve widespread use.

I'll cop out on your second question in the style of H. H. Richardson: The next thing I get to work on at this stage of my career is always the most fulfilling.

CURBED: While much of the contemporary work your firm does is modern, Lord Aeck Sargent has also played a role in the preservation of some of the city's most important buildings including the State Capitol and the MLK, Jr. Federal Building. How important do you feel projects like this are to the city and do you think Atlanta is doing a good job preserving its past in an appropriate way?

AECK: Thanks for the tip of the hat, and of course I am not about to suggest Atlanta has heretofore been a great steward of its historic resources — although I sense some positive change including some appreciation that its best mid-20th Century modern structures are worthy of preservation or adaptive reuse. With Atlanta increasingly focused on sustainability, Carl Elefante's observation that "the greenest building is one already built" is raising our sensibilities and happily causing us to relook at what edifices can be recycled a la Ponce City Market.

CURBED: Finally, what places in Atlanta do you love the most?

Frankly, the list is long and highly varied. From a selfish perspective, I am really enjoying the vistas from our new LEED Platinum office atop the 100 Building at Colony Square after having worked on the third floor of the adjacent 400 Building the last 20 years. And then there is my own "backyard" (pictured below) made possible by a young architect (Richard L. Aeck, FAIA) and a young interior designer (Molly Whitehead Aeck) who scraped together just enough money during the waning years of The Great Depression to buy some cheap land in the City on the banks of the Chattahoochee.

· Lord Aeck Sargent [firm website]
· Field Note Fridays coverage [Curbed Atlanta]